Opinion by Greg Hansen : Once desperate, Wildcats are now desperately close

2008-10-26T00:00:00Z Opinion by Greg Hansen : Once desperate, Wildcats are now desperately closeOpinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star
October 26, 2008 12:00 am  • 

Remember how Arizona's Desert Swarm defense smothered people? How it beat up No. 1 Washington in 1992 and held the Huskies to three points? How it led the nation in total defense in 1993, allowing a bare 236 yards a game?

USC entered Saturday's game at Arizona Stadium allowing even fewer yards, 220 a game, and yet has no sexy nickname. Perhaps the Smother Brothers would fit.

Arizona was able to squeeze out just 188 yards, terrain so grudgingly yielded that the Wildcats seemed to pay for each yard with a few bruises.

The UA was swarmed. It could not run left or right. It did not have enough time to drop back and pass. Each time the Wildcats attempted their go-to, bubble screen pass, USC's defensive speed blew it up.

And yet twice in the final 10 1/2 minutes, Arizona took possession trailing by a tantalizingly close 17-10. Ultimately, the game was lost when the Wildcats could not convert a fourth-and-centimeters quarterback sneak at their 48, clock dipping under five minutes.

But wasn't it fun? Wasn't it worth every cent of the price of admission?

"Tonight was a big game for (Arizona) down here, and it lived up to it,'' said USC coach Pete Carroll. "I don't know if I would have believed it if you told me we'd have so much success against their terrific passing game."

It was the single most encouraging loss of the Mike Stoops years. Is it OK to say that? It was so promising that you can imagine two more standing-room-only crowds at the old stadium: Nov. 22 against Oregon State and surely when the Sun Devils visit on Dec. 6.

It was the clearest signal that the Wildcats are relevant, improving, and more capable than at any time in the last decade.

USC won 17-10 on a night that the Trojans had to grind the way they usually grind against Ohio State or the Oregon Ducks. But wait. That does not apply this year; Arizona played the Trojans closer than the Buckeyes and the Ducks, who earlier this season lost to USC by a cumulative 79-13.

"They were better; they were really good tonight,'' said Stoops. "They made it hard on us to get anything going. We didn't have anything we could go to.''

The Wildcats gained a scant 54 yards in the second half and yet played with such velocity and purpose on defense that the Trojans could not put them away. The progress Arizona has made against USC is astonishing.

As recently as October 2005, USC amassed 724 yards, registered 39 first downs and beat Arizona so thoroughly that Stoops was moved to say, "They make you do a lot of desperate things.''

Arizona is not as good as USC, but it is no longer desperate.

Saturday's game was so tight that it spun on three or four plays. Among the most costly was a late-hit penalty on a UA lineman when Arizona reached USC's 1; it pushed the ball back to the 16 and forced Arizona to settle for a field goal to tie the game at 3.

The other, even more decisive and more agonizing, came when UA safety Nate Ness rushed full-bore, untouched, on a blitz toward Trojan quarterback Mark Sanchez. The game was tied at 10 in the third quarter.

It could have been a game-turning defensive play.

Instead, at the last possible moment, Trojan tailback Joe McKnight dropped to his knees and clipped Ness' feet just as he was about to sack/clobber Sanchez. Ness did a full somersault.

The gamble to blitz left USC fullback Stanley Havili uncovered. Sanchez threw a 30-yard touchdown pass. USC 17, Arizona 10. Ness had to be helped from the field.

"In such a tight contest,'' said Carroll, "it came down to a lot of big coaching decisions.''

USC's defense, fast and physical, took it from there.

UA quarterback Willie Tuitama, for example, entered the game with a 65 percent pass completion percentage. On Saturday, he completed just 14 of 30 for 88 yards, far below his per-game average of 241.

At times, Tuitama must have thought there were 12 or 13 Trojans on the field.

"We just weren't quite good enough,'' said Stoops. "But I couldn't be more pleased with these guys; we're a good football team. You've got to give USC credit. They just took us out of our game and not many people can do that to our offense.''

Arizona's grand short-term goal was to beat USC, but a more realistic hope was to be competitive against an elite opponent. In many ways, Saturday's game was a freebie, a bonus, perhaps, nowhere near as meaningful as the four-game finish against Wazzu, the Oregon schools and Arizona State.

The remaining arithmetic is uncomplicated. Win three of four (especially the finale against ASU), and the Wildcats would finish 8-4, a record that would probably put them in second place in the Pac-10, or in a tie for second.

After playing USC to the wire, those numbers no longer seem preposterous. It seems like the least the Wildcats can do.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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